I am what one might call a “minimalist” rider, in that I like to ride with as little tack and as few extra tools as possible. It annoys me to carry a crop. I do not want to deal with an extra set of reins. I won’t ride with a martingale unless I absolutely have to. And for pretty much my whole life, I’ve managed to avoid spurs.
Much of this preference stems from just liking to keep things simple. Why add stuff on that you don’t need? But there was also an underlying feeling that if I couldn’t get the horse to do what I wanted on my own, using only the aides that come from my body, then I didn’t deserve to call myself a real rider.
I realize now that this is dumb. It’s the same self-bullying nonsense that I was putting on myself when I came back to riding four years ago in Brooklyn, when I was fighting the anxiety of riding a horse through a traffic circle and into a city park and I thought that dismounting when I felt unsafe was admitting weakness that meant I’d never be strong enough to succeed.
In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been working with Dunnie on some more subtle challenges — getting some more vertical and lateral flexion (making his head carriage more supple and soft), and making distinctions between responding to my leg asking him to move different parts of his body (his shoulder for a spin; his side for a side-pass; and his hip for loping off on the correct lead and getting flying changes). I’ve also been working on slowing him down at the lope so that we can really make a marked change between our big fast and our small slow circles.
One of the biggest challenges in the head carriage and the speed control endeavors has been that it requires me to use a lot more rein than I usually do. In keeping with my minimalist riding sensibilities, I also typically aim for using as little hand as possible. But that’s just not effective here. And unfortunately, when using enough rein to get Dunnie to do what I want him to do (hold his head correctly, or slow down at the lope), the side effect is that he breaks gait, or if we’re walking, just stops entirely. At the lope, that has required a tremendous amount of leg effort to keep him going, and finding the balance where we aren’t stop-and-go has been mostly elusive.
My trainer suggested spurs a while ago. I wasn’t as closed off to the idea as I would have been before, but I didn’t have the right kind.
When I started riding here my first trainer suggested that I get a pair — but the kind I got, while pretty minimal, still had a rowel, which is the spiky, revolving disk at the end that you see in all the cowboy movies. Mine had a dull edge, but nonetheless, the couple of times I’ve tried riding with them, Dunnie got pretty agitated. I didn’t feel comfortable with them.
But this week I finally got myself a different kind — a ball spur, without the rowel.
These have a rounded, dull end that is much gentler. It feels more like a thumb pushing into your side and doesn’t have the pinch potential that even the dull-edge rowels have.
Last night I rode with my new spurs for the first time. They take some getting used to. You don’t want to use the spur every time you put your leg on the horse, so I’m having to learn to feel where the spurs end in relation to my bootheel. I’m also really conscious of trying to use them as subtly as I can so Dunnie doesn’t become inured to the sensation.
But using this new tool led to a really great breakthrough. Before, using my reins effectively to get the right head set meant that my natural leg aides (my legs) were not enough of a counterbalance. Now, with a very very slight touch of the spur, I can tell Dunnie that even though I’m pulling on the reins, I don’t want him to stop — I just want him to round his back and push off with his back legs to keep going.
When you’ve been trying and trying and just not getting something right, it can certainly be frustrating. I’ve learned a lot of patience since starting this new discipline, realizing that the horse isn’t going to do something perfectly the first time you ask for it, just like it takes people a lot of practice to master a skill. So I don’t get wound up or upset about it being difficult, or taking longer than I expect it to. But I have to say, that moment when all of sudden you do the tiniest thing differently and it all magically comes together — where you get it, and you also can tell that your horse gets it — in that moment, all the work and all the frustration is completely worth it.
In the post-first-show universe Dunnie and I now inhabit, we’re working on refining some of our technique — particularly, softening and lowering Dunnie’s head carriage. The result of this is that his whole body is carried differently: his back rounds and his legs come underneath him more, moving the propulsion from the front legs pulling him forward to the back legs pushing him forward.
At first, this change felt a lot more comfortable, especially at the canter. The horse is a lot more collected and has less opportunity to get strung out, so it’s easier to sit. However, I noticed at the trot that I was feeling a lot more bounced around than I had been before, and was having a more difficult time sitting deeply in my saddle. I came across an article about correcting common leg, seat, and hand problems and one of the fixes mentioned was stirrup length. Having ridden English most of my life, one of the biggest adjustments I had to make to the Western saddle is the stirrups, both their clunky size and their typically longer length. I’ve been riding with mine on the shortest setting to make myself comfortable, and if I look at myself objectively, my legs do look a bit incongruously crunched up like I’m about to go jump a course in a Western saddle. Thinking about it now, I’m sure that’s contributing to my continued struggles with arching my back too much, and I also suspect it’s causing me to sit with my weight more forward in the saddle — which, in turn, may be making Dunnie more apt to carry his head higher.
So recently I decided it was high time that I put my stirrups down to a more reasonable length and moved them down a hole. Now they fall where I don’t have to lift my leg up to reach them, but can just slide my toes right in.
The first few days that I rode this way were a bit difficult. I felt less secure in my legs, and afterwards could also feel the soreness in some of my interior thigh muscles that I haven’t felt for months. But I’ve been riding with the longer stirrups for a couple of weeks now, and I’m finally starting to feel the payoffs.
It’s another one of those cases where you start doing something new and the fact that you can even do it at all feels like you’re a champ…but then you get a new piece of information, or insight, or make a tiny change and then all of a sudden it’s like, “Oh, this is how it’s supposed to feel.”
That happened the other day when we were cantering around the ring, and I could feel Dunnie’s back rounded, and I could feel myself perched up there, my balance and my posture so different than before. My legs feel longer and my weight in my heels counterbalances the weight of my upper body; I don’t have to grip with my knees or my calves to stay with the motion of the horse — my seat does that naturally. My back isn’t arched anymore, and whenever I find myself falling back into that habit, it’s immediately recognizable because it’s so uncomfortable. When it’s arched, I can feel the impact of hitting the saddle on my hips and my spine. When my lower back is tucked, the ride is so smooth that I could canter all day.
So lately it’s been more about little adjustments that at first are frustrating, but are ultimately leading to big wins.
Speaking of adjustments…I’m working on a new look for the blog. Hoping to roll it out in the next couple of weeks!
Two weekends ago was my first horse show and it has taken me this long to recover from it, let alone write about it.
Sitting down to write about it now, I almost don’t know what to say. Mostly because there are too many things to say. It was an intense, exhausting, instructive, surprising, and joyful experience with a lot of ups and downs. I learned things about riding, about Dunnie, and about myself and felt my brain come alive as it connected concepts from all over the place: my own experience, things I’ve been taught in the past, and disparate things I’ve read.
The clinic was awesome; in ways I enjoyed it better than most of the actual show. I was in the saddle pretty much the whole day from 9 a.m. to 4-ish p.m. with a decently long lunch break in between. I was bit concerned about being in the saddle that long, given that I typically ride for about an hour at a time, and by the end of the day I was feeling it — lots of tightness in my hip flexors, especially. But with stretching before bed that night and then again the next morning before the show, I was not too sore for the day ahead.
For the clinic, we were separated into groups that rotated through classes that matched the four classes we’d be competing in the next day: trail, ranch pleasure, working cow, and reining. Since three out of those four were things I really hadn’t practiced very much, I spent the day soaking up as much info as I could to try to do well (or, in the case of the working cow class, merely survive).
Trail isn’t what it sounds like; it’s not actually on a trail, it’s an obstacle course set up in the ring that represents things you might encounter on the trail, things such as: tree limbs set on the ground like poles that you have to trot or canter over; L-shaped chutes that you have to walk into and then back out of; wooden bridges your horse has to step up onto and down from without hesitating; and a big, metal gate that you have to sidle up to, open, walk through, and close. We had practiced all of the elements other than the gate once or twice in the back ring at the barn, and in the clinic Dunnie did really well on them. When we got to the gate, however, it didn’t go great. He was being very skittish about approaching it, and then I mistakenly opened it the wrong way and we had to start over. Then it took forever for me to get him near enough to open it again. We finally made it through, and then he wouldn’t let me get near enough to close it, and finally Dunnie had enough of it all and just pushed it closed for me with his nose (which is cute, but is not allowed; horses can’t touch the gate). We finished the rest of the course easily. The clinician was really encouraging and started out the whole class by saying that if we made mistakes, we should just laugh them off. So I didn’t get worked up about our troubles with the gate, but I suspected it might be troublesome in the show.
I was right, but I didn’t realize how right I was. The trail class was our first class of the day at the show, but it turned out that they had moved it outside to a hill area instead of in the covered arena where we’d had the clinic. Even though it was the first class of the day, I ended up drawing a very high order number so I didn’t have to go for like two hours after I got on and went over there — and it was already blazing hot then. Dunnie had been pretty excited the morning of the clinic, prancing around and whinnying at everyone, and then deciding he should touch all the horses standing around us with his nose all day — but when we did our classes, he had settled down and listened to me. So I thought we were in the clear, that he’d gotten his excitement out of the way the first day and the show day would be fine. When I took him out first thing on Saturday morning to warm him up, he felt great. But the combination of the new outdoor locale for our trail class and so many people around and my own excitement all contributed to him being jacked up beyond reach. I couldn’t get him to listen to me at all; instead he was just looking around at everything and charging around. I had never experienced him acting like that before. I knew going into the trail class that it was going to be a disaster, and it definitely was. Even all the elements that were easy for us the day before went awry. We made mistakes on every single element, all leading up to the ultimate fiasco wherein we couldn’t even approach the gate for what felt to me like 20 minutes but was probably 5 minutes or less. The part of me that knows that you need to school your horse in these situations and just get through the course, and the part of me that was determined not to fail, kept pushing forward and trying to calm him and make it work. But ultimately the part of me that was frustrated and hyper-aware of how much time we were taking when the show was already falling behind schedule, and just feeling confused and a little betrayed by my horse, won out and I motioned to the judge that we’d be bowing out of the class there.
Ranch pleasure is a class designed to showcase the movement and versatility of the working ranch-style horse. It’s set up in a ring where there are signs posted at various intervals that tell you what gait to pick up (walk, trot, extended trot, lope, extended lope), and a lot of what you’re judged on is the transitions. Dunnie and I do a lot of transition work at home, and I expected this to be the least challenging class for us.
In the clinic, everyone in the group took a turn going around doing what the signs told us to do. Most of the advice the clinician had for everyone was to go faster. He said that the speed that most people were doing at the extended lope was a good speed for the regular lope. His point was that if you pretend that you’re not in a little ring with signs in it but actually out on a ranch, you want to move with purpose so you can get where you’re going. He told an anecdote about a ranch in Wyoming, where a boy was dropped off in the morning and told to ride until he either saw some cows or a fence, and then to turn around and come back. They picked him up at sundown, by which point he had not yet encountered either cow or fence — it’s just that big out there.
We did all right in our turn in the clinic, and I was aware of the things I wanted to do better in the show, but I was still the least worried about this class. On the show day, by the time my class time came around, we’d had a couple of hours of downtime from the trail class, and I hoped Dunnie would be more relaxed. Unfortunately, that was not to be the case. Due to the show falling abysmally behind schedule by this point, they had decided to relocate the ranch pleasure class outdoors to where the trail class had been in order to free up the indoor ring. I tried to ride Dunnie in the warm-up ring, and my trainer even got on and schooled him, but he was still just acting totally out of control. She suggested that I do the class, but ride with two hands in order to school him and try to control him, which due to the rules about riding one-handed with a shank bit, would automatically disqualify me. But since I bombed the trail class, I knew I wasn’t winning any championships here, so I didn’t have much to lose. We were able to get through it and complete all of the required elements — with some extra flair, like Dunnie dropping his shoulder and shying away from some of the signs — and I felt really good about battling it out. I needed a win for myself at that point, because I was going to need a booster shot of confidence going into our next class, the dreaded Working Cow.
The working cow class loomed large in my imagination going into this show experience. Direct interaction with cows in my lifetime has been quite limited. I vaguely recall briefly milking one on a field trip to a farm in elementary school, and there was that giant cow that I would occasionally buy treats for at the general store and then feed over the fence at that farm/animal sanctuary/petting zoo/whatever it is that bizarrely exists smack-dab in the middle of a suburban street in my hometown on Long Island. To be honest, I’m kind of afraid of cows. They are big, and I don’t have enough experience of them to understand how their minds work.
At the barn we didn’t have any cows to practice on, but my trainer had told me that Dunnie had experience as a cow horse and that he becomes “electric” when confronted with cows. We did spend one lesson with a young girl from the barn pretending to be a cow and running along the fence. Dunnie was confused at first. His demeanor was kind of like, “Wait…you want me to…chase this…child?” and then when I said “Yep” and urged him on, he was like “ALL RIGHT, THEN!” and got really into it.
At the clinic, I was quite nervous. I purposefully signed up to be one of the last in my group to go so that I could watch as many people as possible and learn as much from the clinician as I could before it was my turn. The ring was fenced off to be a small portion, where the cow was let in through a gate and the rider attempted to keep him along that wall. The clinician was also in there on his horse talking us through it, and there were other guys on horses that would come in to collect the cow and bring it out through the gate after each was done. Right off the bat when they let all the cows in the ring at the beginning, Dunnie was super interested, which at first made me a little tense.
But as the clinic drew on and I began to understand more of what we needed to do and how to do it, and to get some sense of how the cows were going to react to all of this, I really started to relax. The girls from my barn, who were sorted into another group because they are Youth instead of Novice (like me), were able to come by and sit with me and watch, and having them around made it much easier to lighten up and have fun. They were excited to see Dunnie in action with the cows and we all laughed together about his reaction to them, especially when a rider drove one near the fence we were behind and he put his ears back at the little cow.
For our turn, we ended up having a cow that wasn’t too interested in running around. She kind of just went into the corner and I had to keep approaching her to incite her to move so we could then chase her along the fence. Dunnie was a bit overstimulated and kept backing up instead of going forward, but once we got the cow moving I could feel the cow horse I had under me come awake and start to get a sense of his athleticism. After it was done, I was greatly relieved to have survived it, and even felt like I had made some interesting conceptual connections with working the cows and a book I had read about taming wild mustangs (which I’ll save for its own separate post because this one is already becoming novel length).
On show day, the relief I had felt after the cow class in the clinic was doing little to mitigate my nervousness. So far, I’d had two classes on a horse that wasn’t listening to me because he was too riled up by his surroundings, and now I was about to put him in the ring with something that demonstrably gets him even more excited. In the show, the ring was not going to be cordoned off — it was the whole entire ring I’d be dealing with, giving the cow ample room to run us ragged. I seriously considered scratching the class for a few moments. But this was what I was there for, what I had gone through the expense and trouble to get to and then sat around in the sweltering heat all day for, to learn and gain experience. So I decided to go in there and set my goal as simply getting through it. I was definitely not, as many of the other riders did, going to chase the cow down the long side of the ring at top speed, no matter how fun that looked. I was going to go in there and do my best to control my horse and hope that now, after several hours in his stall and a thunderstorm that had broken up some of the unbearable heat of the day, he would be ready to listen to me.
And for whatever reason, he was. Maybe it was just the outdoor situation that had put him over the edge all morning, and now that we were in a ring he felt more comfortable. Maybe it was my own exhaustion that pushed me past even being capable of exhibiting anxiety anymore, ending the feedback loop of bad energy that had been carried through the reins between us all day. But when I got on Dunnie, he was the horse I know and trust again. And we went into the cow class and did exactly what I wanted to do. You can watch a video of it. It looks really boring, because the cow immediately gives us the slip and we just very slowly and sedately follow him down the ring and collect him. But it felt like a huge accomplishment, and I was incredibly pleased. And now that I’ve done it and survived, I’m SO EXCITED to do it again because when I watch people who are really getting into it, it looks like so much fun. I think Dunnie and I will have a blast the next time we do this. The relief I felt after this class at having my partner back came at a good time — before our final class, and the one that I really cared the most about — reining.
Reining has been the main thing that Dunnie and I practice at home. We had the pattern memorized and had been fine-tuning it for weeks. With the exception of the sliding stop, which we didn’t work on because Dunnie doesn’t have the right shoes for it, I felt we could do all of the required elements and do them well.
The reining clinic was very interesting, and extremely helpful in fixing a specific problem we’d been having with our lead changes. In this video, taken the week before the show, you can see that on the left-to-right change (the second one in the video), Dunnie anticipates the lead change and changes his back feet first, goes a couple strides, and then changes his front lead. The ideal is to change them both at once. I brought this issue up with the clinician, and he gave me really good instruction. First, we worked on moving Dunnie’s hip at the walk (something we’ve also been working on since we came back from the show and which I’ll write more about soon). Once we got that down, he suggested that I try the lead change again, but this time to have a little more propulsion to my lope. It worked right away; Dunnie gave me such a smooth, pretty lead change that I almost didn’t know it happened until the clinician smiled and congratulated me. Since this was the one element I had any concern about in our reining pattern going into the show, I was really pleased and grateful to have learned a fix for it.
The reining class on show day was the culmination of an extremely long, insanely delayed day full of “hurry up and wait.” We got up at 6 a.m., got to the show grounds by 7:45, and I was up on my horse (and waiting in the sun) for my first class at around 9:30. My last class, the reining class, was originally scheduled for around 4–5 p.m.; I actually rode close to 9 p.m. By that point, everyone was hot and drained and also worrying about getting everything cleaned and packed up so that we could leave at a reasonable hour for the 1.5-hour-long drive home. I hadn’t had any dinner, but my blood sugar was saved by one of the barn moms giving me all her remaining peanut m&ms. I just wanted to shower off the 10 gallons of sweat on my body and go to sleep. But I was also really excited about the reining class, and once I got up on Dunnie and was sitting in that chute waiting for our number to be called, everything that had been so hectic and out of control and confusing and stressful all day just turned instead into a feeling of buoyant confidence and focus.
We entered the ring at a collected trot and any last concerns I had about Dunnie being there with me were gone. We stopped in the center, waiting for the signal from the judge to begin. From a stop, when we picked up our right-lead canter, everything was amazing. I’d done that same pattern with Dunnie a million times at home; some days were pretty good, some were a little messy. But it had never felt the way it did at the show. It was like being in the show arena woke something up in him and he was just on. I was feeling it too, and while it was happening it was somehow simultaneously hyper-real and dream-like. Pretty much all of it was better than we had ever done it before, including nailing the lead changes and even getting a little bit of a slide on some of the stops. It was thrilling. There’s a video of it, and when I first had the chance to watch it I actually dreaded doing so a little bit, because I was worried that it wasn’t going to look as good as it felt. But I was so happy to see that it did!
Right after I finished my round, I jumped off Dunnie, threw my arms around his neck for a huge hug, and then basically put him right on the trailer. We left right after that and got home at 11 p.m., at which point I crashed harder than I can remember doing in a very, very long time.
Because we left so quickly, I didn’t get a chance to see any of my scores. I think that SHOT will eventually post them online, and I’m looking forward to seeing them (or at least the reining score) so I can learn where to improve for next time. Now that we have our first show under our belt and have dealt with all the newness and uncertainty which that entails, I can’t wait to do it all again and do it better.
With my first show coming up in just over two weeks, I’ve been training hard to make sure I have at least a functional level of all the skills that will be required to do well. Despite doing some preparation way in advance, there is one thing that I have sort of left to the last minute, and that’s learning to cope with split reins.
For the last couple of months I’ve either been riding Dunnie with English reins on his Western shank bit, or riding two-handed with split reins. In the show, you’re allowed to ride two-handed if you’re using a snaffle, but if you’re using the kind of bit Dunnie has, the rider has to ride one-handed.
Even though I am a pretty light-handed rider, the reins really loom large in my idea of having control of my horse. I’m content to ride on a loose rein when everybody’s calm and things are going fine, but when shit hits the fan, the reins really feel like a life raft in the sea of chaos that can occur.
Riding with two hands also just intuitively makes more sense to me from a balance perspective; it’s much easier to keep the reins even and your horse’s head straight.
But all of that rationalization won’t get me much when the show comes and I have to do everything one-handed, so today I finally started practicing in earnest. The goal I’m setting for myself is to spend the next two weeks (all the time until the show) with only one hand on the reins. Hopefully by then, it’ll feel like second nature.
The biggest challenge that seems to present itself is how to lengthen and shorten the reins. Today I practiced that, first at the walk, then at the trot, and then at the canter. You’re not allowed to even touch the reins with your second hand, so this entails sort of crab-walking your fingers up and down the reins, balancing them against the different fingers to inch in the direction you want to go. Lucky for me, my left (non-dominant) hand is fairly dexterous and responsive (maybe from all those years of playing softball and catching with that hand?). The idea in all the ranch-inspired riding disciplines is that you hold your reins with your non-dominant hand, leaving your dominant hand free to swing a rope.
Another challenge seems to be dealing with the long trailing ends of the split reins. They are supposed to lay over the shoulder on the same side as the hand that’s holding the reins, but they are quite long. Mine keep getting caught up on my saddle or saddle pad, and I need to shake them free so they don’t get stuck. And I will admit that I have moderate-to-severe paranoia that Dunnie will trip on the strips of leather that are dangling pretty much all the way down to his feet.
For his part, he does not seem to share this concern, or really any of my concerns regarding the split reins. He seems to be more comfortable with them, and with my one-handed riding. With two hands on the reins, he tends to raise his head more, especially at faster gaits like an extended trot or a canter; with one hand, he is more apt to naturally drape his head low, the way a reining horse is supposed to. So at least there’s that going for me.
Despite my initial reluctance, I feel really good about today’s ride. Since the footing in the ring was a bit sloppy in the middle, it wasn’t good conditions for further practicing our reining patterns, but I think that was a good thing. Being limited to sticking to the rail forced me to get creative about what to work on and I think it was very productive. After getting to an initial stage of being accustomed to the one-handed riding, I started working on controlling our speed less with my hands (ok, hand) and more with my seat and body.
We started at the slowest possible walk I could get Dunnie to do, sitting back and deep in the saddle, and then I worked up to extending that walk to being as fast as it could be without him breaking into a trot. Then I did the same with the trot, using the swing of my hips and leg pressure to extend it. I alternated extending the trot on the long sides of the ring and slowing it down on the short sides, then switched it up and did one long side fast, and one short side slow with the ends sort of a medium pace. I did all of these speed adjustment using as little hand as possible. Then we did it at the canter.
This sort of thing is going to actually be useful in some of the reining patterns we’ll see, because there are times when they ask for a big, fast circle and then a small, slow circle. So speed adjustment is an important skill. But this exercise also helped remind me and reinforce how much more important my body and position are than my hands in controlling my horse. It helped me become more comfortable with this transition to riding one-handed, forcing me to stop relying on my hands for the idea of having control. One hand or two, it’s my position that will communicate much more to my horse.
My first horse show as a Western rider (and as an adult) is coming up at the end of September. The last time I rode in a horse show, it was an IHSA competition my senior year of college, 13 years ago.
Dunnie and I have been working hard to get ourselves in shape for the show, but much of the work we’ve been doing is on isolated skills or strengthening specific areas. It’s important work, since I am still learning these skills, and he’s still re-sharpening them, and there has been a lot of really satisfying improvement over the last couple of months. But over the last week or so, things have started to come together on a whole new level.
Reining is going to be just one part of four parts to the show that will also include Western Pleasure, Trail, and Working Cow, but it’s the one I’ve been most focused on. In reining, you ride a pattern of circles, spins, and stops; there are three different patterns that could potentially be the one chosen for us to ride at the show in September.
With just under a month to go, my trainer has started us on learning all three of the patterns and fine-tuning them, so when we get to the show we’ll have them down pat.
You’d think, given my exceptional lack of spatial-relationship sense, that learning and memorizing the patterns would be just about impossible for me. I’ve been notorious in the past for going off course when learning jumping courses, but for some reason these reining patterns make sense to me. The elements all seem to flow together and connect in a way that after I’ve ridden them once, I can visualize them in my head thereafter and go over them in my mind. I realize this is a basic skill that most people take for granted, but for me it’s like I’ve all of a sudden developed mental superpowers.
Even more amazing is the effect all of this has had on Dunnie. There have been times when we’ve tried something new (to me) that I’ve felt stirrings from him, a kind of reawakening of memories of doing all this stuff. But when we started putting it all together with the patterns, it really woke him up. It’s like “Oh, we’re doing this? Like, for real, not just playing? Ok.” He’s always willing, and he always tries, but now he’s also really focused — and it’s impressive how I can feel his impeccable training and his talent shining through.
Despite my many years of riding, I’ve had very few opportunities to ride real working show horses. I’ve been on hundreds of random school horses, with their hodgepodge of backgrounds and quirks. I’ve ridden a few OTTBs and former polo ponies who, while being quite athletic, weren’t originally trained for what I was doing with them. The first time I got on Dunnie back in April, I had zero expectations or preconceptions, because I didn’t even really know what a reining horse was or was supposed to be. I just knew that something clicked with us and I wanted to keep riding him. Seeing him transform, and now feeling him becoming so focused and enthusiastic about what we’re doing has been an incredible experience because he’s getting back to what he was born and raised for, what he was meant to do. And in learning with him and from him, maybe I’m finding that for myself, too.
Now that I ride 3 to 4 times a week, I have a lot less time for writing about riding. Which is a trade I’ll take any day. The riding has been particularly good lately, and I chalk that up to two things: 1) a happy horse and 2) strong thighs.
Dunnie has been in a great mood lately, since he started getting turned out at night in the big back paddock with his new girlfriend, who is appropriately named “Happy.” He’s so much less crabby than he had gotten lately, and is back to thinking it’s fun to play with me in the ring.
While one can’t possibly overvalue the merit of having a happy horse to ride, perhaps the even bigger improvement in our riding over the last two weeks has been how strong my legs have gotten. Part of this has been from consistent riding for a few months; the horse muscles are finally getting back to proper shape. The other part is that I have, in anticipation of an upcoming “milestone” birthday, become extra-focused on toning myself up, specifically in the thigh area.
Pinterest has about 3 billion suggestions for how to tone up your thighs, and I’ve been incorporating them into my daily workouts. In the mornings, I do some light thigh-centered calisthenics (leg lifts, fire hydrants, sumo squats, wall sits…I’ve tried them all) in circuits that switch up the exercises from day to day. I go for a half-hour to forty-five-minute ride around midday, hopefully before it gets hot as hell. Then sometimes in the afternoon I go to the gym and either do weight training (which is often upper-body-focused, cuz that’s important too), but also includes squats with a dumbbell over my shoulders, and the leg-press machine. Or I run on the treadmill, or, preferably, outside.
It’s amazing how much of a difference it has made in my riding, immediately. Before, at the lope I’d have a really difficult time going for more than half the ring. I’d be gripping with my legs inefficiently and huffing and puffing because of it. Also, in my weakness I was tensing up my lower back, making it rigid to try to hold on tighter but only succeeding in bouncing against my horse’s movement instead of flowing with it. I went back to Sally Swift’s Centered Riding to remind myself of the right movement for a rider at the different gaits, and it worked like a charm. I took that metaphorical metal rod right out of my back, and now I’m flowing along with Dunnie’s rhythm as we lope around the ring several times, doing large fast and small slow circles, and I don’t feel wiped out from it at all.
I’ve had this picture as my computer background image since approximately 2004. It has migrated across my computer screens through several different jobs. My coworkers would ask, “Hey, is that you?” and I’d reply “I wish.” It’s always been a touchstone for me, even though most of my life I’ve been an English rider. It’s an image that represents the little girl in me, who answered the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” with “A cowgirl!” even though I didn’t really know what that entailed, I just knew it was someone who worked with horses.
Riding Dunnie this last week, I’ve had glimpses of this feeling. We’ll be loping around, and I’ll feel strong and centered and relaxed, and he’s happy and fit and collected, and it’s like I’ve clicked into a place that I’ve only dreamed about before. This mythical cowgirl riding her horse through the firey sunset isn’t just an image I’ve carried inside me for years in those moments; for a few seconds, I am her.
We went through a phase in the last month or so where things weren’t going great. I think what happened is that Dunnie got over the initial excitement of having someone new to play with. When I got there, he was kinda bored and lonely and so he was willing and interested in anything I wanted to do. But after a bit of that, he decided it was time to play on his own terms, which is how I came to realize how truly smart he is. This usually took the form of doing something weird when I gave him a cue, even very simple things like “trot,” he was seemingly misinterpreting for “weird, crappy half-pass.” We had a lot of difficulty with the canter transition initially, too. And then our spins, understandably rudimentary at first as I learned how to ask for them and as he worked through stiffness and rebuilt those muscles, all of a sudden started deteriorating instead of improving.
I misunderstood what was happening. I thought that as I was going through the learning curve, I had just hit the part where things that seemed pretty simple to learn at the outset had now reached a deeper level of complexity and revealed that they needed more skill on my part. Perhaps that is true, to a degree. Unfortunately, that sort of thinking turned it into an Ego Thing. Especially during lessons, when I feel like I have something to prove to myself and my trainer in order to feel like I’m progressing.
In reality, what I had on my hands was a bored, smart horse who was messing with me. That’s a situation that requires flexibility, not the rigidity of an ego-driven desire to just push myself and my horse harder. I found myself on some days getting very frustrated with him and myself, and that’s what forced me to take a step back.
I’ve learned recently that the biggest factor in creating frustration or anxiety for me is feeling rushed, and I’m almost always doing it to myself. Obviously there are situations in life which are under time constraints that we have no control over. But I rush myself all the time, for no reason. When I’m learning something new, I just want to know it all and master it all RIGHT NOW. So when I found myself huffing and puffing and growling at my horse like a rabid dog, my first step in getting back on track was to slooooow it down.
Everything I was trying to do, I took to a slower gait, or a lower threshold of success. We couldn’t lope a whole circle without him alternately charging with his head up or breaking down to a trot? So we did the circle at a walk, in good form. Then we did it at the trot. I couldn’t get him to do a left spin at all; he was just twisting his neck and then backing up. So I spent a ton of time undoing that. Forgetting the spin, I just pushed him forward every time he tried to take a step back in response to my cue. I literally just worked forever on getting him to walk forward. After that, I trotted him in very small circles, reinforcing that I wanted forward motion from him (ultimately where the speed will come from in the spin) and that I wanted him to cross over his legs. After awhile of tiny trot circles, I tried to use that momentum to pull him directly into a spin. It worked on the right, but I still got nothing on the left. Finally, I ended up trotting him toward the fence; when its presence forced our forward motion to stop, I immediately put on my outside leg to push his butt over toward the fence, executing a half turn. Even then, I rewarded him taking even one step the way I wanted him to.
This week I’ve ridden twice so far, and in both rides, it seems that my work has paid off. I’m much more relaxed, because I don’t have rushed, unrealistic goals and a sneaking suspicion that I don’t know what I’m doing. Dunnie is more relaxed and seems to be willing to play with me again on my terms because I’ve extended him patience and clear communication instead of frustration. He’s back to doing things just because I’ve asked him to do them. And now I’ve incorporated a sort of graduated method of working with him in our rides. Push, fall back. We try something that’s a bit of a reach and set a low threshold for what constitutes “success” at that. Then we fall back and doing something physically easy or brainless. I make him do five-foot circles at a walk to build up his spin muscles, and then I just let him trot around without schooling him at all. He’s so much happier. And because he’s happier, he’s easier to control. And because he’s easier to control, I can have a much, much lighter touch on my aids. These last two days I have been tamping down how much I need to touch him on the reins or with my heels to get to the lowest possible amount that makes him react. Often, it’s not much. Being lighter on my aids, in turn, makes him happier. And all of that makes me happier, and on top of it, actually makes me feel like I’m finally getting somewhere.
My trainer left and now I’ve started riding with the woman who formerly owned the horse I’m leasing. She knows him incredibly well and I feel like we are finally on a really good track towards making some progress.
In the last couple of weeks, Dunnie was starting to get really, really ornery. I wasn’t quite sure why; I speculated that it could have been the arrival of all the summer camp kids, or the ridiculous heat (upwards of 105 with the heat index). But I also noticed that he was becoming less sensitive to my cues and that things we had done pretty well before, like spins, seemed to be getting worse, not better.
It was all a bit discouraging. It was a sort of in-betweeny time for me where I was missing lessons due to all the nasty weather we had and I was just trying to fix problems entirely on my own, and seemingly making them worse. But one lesson with my new trainer shed light on the problem. It wasn’t me; it was the equipment we were using.
I have hated Dunnie’s saddle from Day One. It’s a nice-enough-looking show saddle, but it weighs like 3 tons. I can never lift it onto his back without giving myself a hernia and making him pissed off because I’ve got either the girth or the stirrup stuck underneath it.
And apparently he has been hating it too. Wednesday night my trainer got on him during my lesson to see what was up with him; was he stiff, or just not used to being told what to do, or what? She turned around in the saddle and realized that the saddle looked to be too long and putting painful pressure on his back by his loins. We speculated that it could be the reason he kept pulling his head up much higher than he was supposed to be carrying it, and why he seemed to be charging around the ring like he wanted to do. She also pointed out that the bit he had on was quite harsh, and didn’t give me any leeway with connecting with his mouth without putting a lot of pressure there.
I had some suspicions about the saddle. I’ve been reading Reining: The Guide for Training & Showing Winning Reining Horses by Al Dunning, and the chapter on the importance of fitting the saddle to your horse had some elements that jangled in my mind a little bit. But the equipment that I ride Dunnie in is his. It came along with him, so I kind of assumed that whoever picked it out for him chose stuff that fit him right.
Yeah, that assumption was wrong. Last night I went out to the barn to ride again, this time with totally different tack. The saddle that my trainer picked out from the tackroom was seriously about 1/3 of the weight of Dunnie’s saddle, and the saddle pad had a nice split in it in the place where it goes over his withers, so it wasn’t putting pressure there. It was also a shorter length, so it didn’t cut into his back where the other one was. As a nice added bonus for me, the stirrups were a lot less stiff—the leather on his saddle makes it really hard to get the stirrups straight on my feet and I always felt like my ankles were being twisted. Now my feet are straight again and I can put a lot more weight into my heels. We also put him in a different bridle with a less-harsh shank bit, and (yay for me) no split reins.
The difference was staggering. When I got on him last night, he was a different horse. My trainer said she could see him smiling—his ears were up, he wasn’t tense, he felt so much lighter in my hands. He wasn’t charging around the ring with his head in the air anymore, either. When we took off at a lope, I was able to make a slight connection with his mouth like I needed to rate his speed without him getting pissed. And he just naturally carried his head low and relaxed.
Today I went out and rode him by myself in that same tack, and it was great. He was back to being that same willing, happy horse I started riding a couple of months ago—before the accumulation of pain from his tack turned him ornery. And now that he’s not so tense anymore, I can be a lot less tense. Before when we were cantering, he would pick up his head, which would cause me to tense on the reins, which would cause him to slow, which would cause me to tense in my calves to push him forward, which would cause him to speed up too much because I was gunning him, and then back to the tension on the hands again to try to slow him down. It was a feedback loop where we were really frustrating each other. Today, for the first time, we calmly loped a circle the way we’re supposed to. He was relaxed and responded to the slight pressure of my hands to regulate his speed, so I was able to stop my death grip on his sides with my calves, and really sit deeply in the saddle. If he felt like he was going to break, I was able to push with my seat to keep him going. Everything just felt so much more free and flowing.
The whole thing has made me realize the deep importance of having the right equipment for your horse, and for that to be a serious part of the evaluation of what’s going wrong if there seems to be something going wrong. Keeping your horse as happy and comfortable as you can results in a better ride for both of you.
It’s been almost two months now since I started riding Dunnie.
The day I met him, I went out to the barn knowing almost nothing about him; I knew that he was a reining horse and that he had won 3rd place at the International Buckskin Horse Association’s World Show several years ago, and that he was much loved at the barn. I had no idea what to expect, and, having just about zero knowledge of reining, no idea really how to measure him.
When he came out of his stall, I thought he seemed a little small, a little pudgy, and very shaggy with a thick, hay-colored winter coat.
But I reserved judgement, trying to learn as much as possible about him. He had been leased for a while by a woman before me who rode him a couple times a week; she’d had to move away because of her job. He’d been pastured outdoors in the winter, which accounted for the unusually heavy coat in a place where it doesn’t get all that cold.
The first time I groomed him myself, I realized just how much coat he was shedding. In five minutes, I’d have several curry-combfuls of his light-colored winter coat drifting around the ground. But underneath, I could see glimmers of the shiny, golden coat that must have inspired his show name, which I learned through some Googling is “Boomtown Gold.” I began to get excited about cleaning him up, and threw myself into grooming him really well every day that I rode him.
Slowly, more and more of that undercoat emerged. One day while grazing him, I looked over at his back and saw the sun shining off the spot on his withers where all the winter coat had come off. He was still shaggy around his belly and thighs, but here was a glimpse of what he’d look like once he finished shedding. We’d had an especially good ride that day, I felt I was getting stronger and making progress on learning reining techniques. As I reflected on how lucky I felt to be where I was, doing what I was doing—how lucky I was to have stumbled upon Dunnie—I looked at him and felt like I’d struck gold.
I’ve ridden him every chance I’ve gotten for the past two months, weather and work sometimes making that tricky, but I keep finding a way. Most of the time it’s just us out there, with me doing the best I can to be the leader, taking him through the exercises I’ve learned from my trainer and from reading and watching everything on the Internet related to reining in order to build up his muscle and flexibility and get his mind and body back into competition shape. Simultaneously I’m his student, letting him teach me how to communicate with him so we can do the tricks he already knows how to do and that I’m just discovering for the first time. When we’re out there together alone, we work—the riding I’m doing now is the most focused, most directed, most in-depth riding experience I’ve ever had—but it’s also play. I can feel him responding with interest to every new game I pose, every challenge. “What if we try this?” I ask and he says, “I’m game!” Sometimes we do great and I’m amazed at how easy it is. Other times it’s not perfect, but we gave it a good try and so we move on, saving it for another day.
People at the barn have started commenting on the change in Dunnie. My trainer says she can see him getting more fit; others have commented on how much happier he seems, how much friendlier he is in his stall. Someone mentioned that he’d been allowed to get away with quite a bit prior to my arrival, and that he seems to be responding really well to me. It’s so wonderful to hear these things. There’s probably no greater compliment I can receive than “You are making things better,” and when that specifically includes making someone else happier and healthier, well, it doesn’t get any better than that. He’s making me better, too, making me learn patience and chipping away at my stupid perfectionism.
It’s a trope our society presents frequently in stories: the makeover—whether drastic and overnight, or subtle and gradual—the idea that something or someone new comes into your life and fills an empty space and you become visibly different, the changes on the outside reflecting the changes occurring inside. Sometimes, even when it is gradual, it can be startling, as it was the other day when I tacked up Dunnie and brought him into the indoor arena. I put his reins up on his saddle horn and left him standing there a moment while I dragged a stray jump standard out to the edge of the ring, and when I turned back and saw him, I was amazed. The winter coat is completely gone now, and he’s lost weight and toned up. With his fancy saddle and his ears perked up, he looked like the champion showhorse that he was before, and hopefully will soon be again.
This week’s riding has been some of the best of…well, ever.
So far, I’ve been out to ride three days this week (still up in the air about going today, since storms are predicted this afternoon), and on every one of those days, I’ve felt improvement. I haven’t had the opportunity to ride like this since I was a pre-teen in a summer riding camp, and it’s possibly the best thing (riding-wise) that’s ever happened to me.
One of the biggest frustrations I had while riding back in the city was the length of time between lessons. I’d start to feel like I was learning something and then it’d be a week, or two weeks, or several months before I got on a horse again and by that time it was back to square one. There comes a point in learning where you need to just put in hours. First, you learn things. If you can do the thing at all, it feels like an accomplishment. But then you reach a level where it feels like you’ve plateaued. You can still do the thing, but the more you do it, the more you realize you’re not doing it that well, and the desire to get better is kindled. At that point, you just need to spent a lot of consistent time reinforcing and refining the skills you learned when you were at a more basic level.
That plateau level is basically where I’ve been for the three years since I’ve gotten back into riding. I’m more mature now than I was when I stopped at the age of 21, and in the intervening years, I’ve learned a lot more about how to learn. So since I’ve been back on the horse, I’ve been happy, grateful, relieved … and also, fundamentally frustrated, knowing that there was so much more to riding and wanting to go there but never quite being able to get there.
And now, I’m there. One day, this amazingly trained, patient, willing horse was dropped into my lap and now I’m finally, finally able to ride and train at the level I’ve been yearning for. I set goals and then every day I work at them a little more and I improve a little more and then I achieve them.
Like last week, when I was struggling to get Dunnie into a good canter transition without running into a sloppy trot. I had a breakthrough then with figuring out a better way to ask him for the canter, and I set myself a goal for this week: to be able to canter around the entire ring, getting the flying change in both directions. I thought it might be a stretch for me, given how weak my legs felt at that point. But then yesterday we did it. From a complete standstill, Dunnie picked up a canter in a perfect transition. We cantered around the ring, got the flying lead change in both directions. I even went a little bit further than that, backing him up after we stopped, doing a rollback (which I didn’t even really know how to do, but just felt like he did so thought I’d try it) and then picking up another perfect canter transition in the opposite direction. I felt…real. As in, “I’m really doing this.”